Amish Grace, Thomas Cornell, & Intertwined Love: Risks of Writing Historical Fiction


     “…the most disturbing aspect of the upcoming television move “Amish Grace” is the fictional liberties it takes in depicting the aftermath of the 2006 killings of five Amish girls in a Nickel Mines schoolhouse,” according to Herman Bontrager, an Akron man who acted as a spokesman for the Nickel Mines Amish community after the shootings. “Amish tell the truth and are accustomed to telling the truth. When you take an account like this, and make it appear like it happened, and fictionalize it, that’s troubling.”*

     Authors of the book on which the movie is based, “Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy,” agree on this point.**

     Fiction based on an actual historical framework is always up for criticism. It’s an issue I’ve been aware of since I began delving in writing my novel, “Intertwined Love.” Its historical framework includes 1790s people, both the well known— Henry Knox, William Duer, William Bingham, Alexander Baring, Thomas Jefferson among them—and the less well known: Franco van Berckle, Madame Rosalie de Leval, Louis des Isles, Mary Googins, and Joseph Swett.

     I encountered the criticism issue  in two situations. First, my in-depth research disproved some oral traditions about East Lamoine, Maine, I shared the documentation with a community native. The late Gladys Vigent (a Samuel Des Isles descendent) was emotionally shaken, angry.

      “That (the oral tradition) is what I learned, and it will not change,” she stated. This indicates to me that a person with a deep local history can be angered by documentation that disproves what they have been taught. Oral traditions can be deeply embedded in their psyche.

     Before making any assertion refuting historical folklore, authors must be certain of their documentation. I don’t dare refute a community’s oral tradition without the proper documentation.

     The second situation involved a docent at the Henry Knox house, Montpelier, in Thomaston, Maine. I wanted to learn about Henry Knox between 1991 and the period after he built his summer home in 1795. When I mentioned that it was highly probable that Madame visited Henry Knox, the docent kept repeating that she “couldn’t have.”

     “Why not,” I asked.

     He was adamant, but couldn’t give me a good answer. I can only assume that he was somewhat unaware of Knox’s financial irresponsibility, especially notable in his Scioto (Ohio) and Penobscot (Maine) land speculations.

     And, by the way, it is entirely possible that Madame visited Knox at Montpelier.

     Concurrently with writing the novel, I am penning a fictionalized short story for a near-death anthology. The story line rests on a 1673 historical framework, the story of Thomas Cornell. He was convicted and hung for murdering his mother, Rebecca Cornell. This plot is very risky. The story’s framework is very well documented. There is a large group of descendants of Rebecca, and her husband, Thomas Cornell, who are active on Cornell genealogy Internet sites.

     Bontrager, after viewing the movie trailer for “Amish Grace,” said not only does the film not portray the Amish dress accurately, “it doesn’t characterize the gentleness of the Amish community and individuals very well.” He is also concerned that events didn’t happen the way they were fictionalized in the film.

    Making any mistake in the historical framework of historical fiction, even a small one, opens the way to severe criticism. Authors writing in this genre must pay attention to the smallest detail in order to have credibility.

     My husband lost credibility in one author when he read a story that claimed there was a full moon on a certain night. He checked it out. Upon finding out that that detail wasn’t true, he immediately lost confidence in the author’s credibility.

     It can be difficult to maintain accuracy to that detail in writing. That is the risk inherent in writing historical fiction. Writers need be cautious when fictionalizing historical situations. They need to avoid making it appear that the fictionalized version is what actually occurred. The best way to do this is to document the historical framework and to stay with this documentation, using writer’s liberties only to fill in the details.

     Writing historical fiction was the risk for the movie. It is also the risk for my novel, and for my short story. Hopefully, I can achieve my goal without too much criticism. All I have to do is to do my homework.

     As other historical fiction writers must do.


      *Material on “Amish Grace* is from the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal reprinted in the Greensburg Tribune-Review, D1, March 25, 2010

     **The authors of “Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy” are Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt and David L. Weaver-Zercher.  Television’s Lifetime channel will broadcast “Amish Grace” at 8:00 p.m., March 28, 2010.




Two Photographers Named Cornell





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